BBC Sports Personalities Of The Year: Poll misses point as Gazza's tears beat The King's sidestep

Flawed footballer's victory and omission of Britain's best rugby union player prove BBC award fails to recognise our heroes properly
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Who can say who was the greatest British sports personality of the last 50 years? Who can really tell you, for example, how it was for Lester Piggott going into the sauna on a diet of a sip of champagne and a cigar and then driving Roberto to the finish line?

Who can truly chart the genius of Barry John, of whom it was once said that he could go in and out of a room without using the door? Or pinpoint the springs of nature which gave Kenny Buchanan such fierce resolve and impeccable technique when he beat Ismael Laguna in Madison Square Garden?

Unfortunately, if anybody could, it wouldn't really matter - as least as far as the BBC's hugely hyped poll is concerned. Britain's best jockey, rugby union player and boxer over the designated period are non-starters for the honour which will be announced to the nation tomorrow night.

John was christened The King for his sublime performances for the Lions in New Zealand three decades before Clive Woodward's coaching and the kicking of Jonny Wilkinson broke the stranglehold of the southern hemisphere - and it was also in 1971 that Buchanan, the world lightweight champion, licked Laguna.

None of it did John much good, and Buchanan no good at all. John finished third in the voting and Buchanan did not figure. Princess Anne won it. George Best was second. Wilkinson will be rugby's first winner this year, no doubt. He follows ice dancers and a snooker player in the roll of honour.

Piggott's ascendency in the classics, his implicit understanding of and communication with the finest thoroughbreds, which Sir Noel Murless described as a "mystery known only to God", was never, as far as the voting public was concerned, worthy of even a minor placing. Only two jockeys, Frankie Dettori, after going through the card at Ascot, and Tony McCoy, after his record-breaking effort last year, have ever registered - and both in third place.

So what have we been voting for, and who indeed could throw light on the chore?

Perhaps not the majority of the five advisors who have appeared in the week-long trailer, Simply The Best, supervised by a sometimes deeply embarrassed Gary Lineker.

Ralph Little, the television comedy actor, advanced the claims of Ian Botham, safely enough. Gary Beadle, who helps run a bed-sitter in EastEnders, recommended Sir Steve Redgrave. Johnny Vaughan, a talk show host, thought the ultimate prize should go to Paul Gascoigne. Michael Buerk nominated Sir Henry Cooper, a two-time winner who brought a great left hook and much natural charm into the ring but, for the cognoscenti, was never remotely in the league of Buchanan or, for that matter, the 1999 choice Lennox Lewis. Last night Lineker, finally, could relax. Jimmy Hill said the top place had to go to Bobby Moore.

Moore's career, his competitive grandeur and his modest nature speak entirely for themselves, of course, but there is reason to be grateful to Hill, Little and Beadle because even if they abetted an act which cannot avoid making 49 losers out of 50 winners, they at least sought the solid ground of undoubted excellence.

Of course you may say we are talking about harmless fun - and the endless, stimulating racket of colliding opinions. And in some respects you would be right. But not all of it is harmless - or fun.

There is a victim and it is one which should be guarded with some vigilance if we really care about the business of recognising the difference between great achievement and mere fame.

The casualty is anything like a strenuous effort to define and properly recognise our heroes.

Vaughan's declaration on behalf of Gazza was most worrying in the way it reminded you of an assertion by Piers Morgan, the editor of the Daily Mirror who has recently been conducting a television series on the vagaries of modern celebrity. Morgan told a national radio audience that the majority of British youth would have great difficulty in identifying with Tiger Woods. The reason was that the Tiger's victory in The Open at St Andrew's in 2000 had been so flawless, so all-consuming, it had been, well, boring. No, Tiger would inevitably turn off the kids.

What they could more easily relate to was the style of the Arsenal goalscorer Ian Wright. He was not perfect. No, you could say that, certainly. He had an appalling disciplinary record. But he fired the imagination of the young.

Vaughan took up a similar theme. Gazza had inspired the nation. How? By losing control in the semi-final of the World Cup in Italy in 1990. He left the field with tears streaming down his face after he had committed a foul which ruled him out of a possible final. That, according to Vaughan, fired the nation. But with what? Love of failure, of squandering talent, of stewing in self-pity? It was soon after that, and the making of the pop video "Fog on the Tyne" and modelling appearances, that Gascoigne was smuggled into the BBC studio in Shepherd's Bush. He complained to Terry Wogan of fatigue and a loss of privacy. At the Television Centre he had clambered out of the boot of a car. Wogan told the youngster he should ignore his critics - and make as much money as he could.

That's what Gazza did. He imploded at Spurs. Failed at Lazio. Became a travesty of a professional at Ibrox while faking the playing of an Orangeman's whistle during a Celtic game. Trailed away from Middlesbrough. Became the despair of Walter Smith, again, at Everton. But according to Mr Vaughan, Gascoigne was the supreme sporting personality of the last 50 years.

That put him ahead of Moore and Botham and Nick Faldo, winner of six majors, and Redgrave, winner of five golds at five Olympics, Jim Laker, the legendary off-spinner, Gordon Pirie, lean, hungry world record-breaker, and all those who did not win the award - Sir Roger Bannister, Gareth Edwards, Duncan Edwards, Sir Bobby Charlton, Ted Dexter and Lynn Davies. Pick another 100 who stayed the course better than the talented Gascoigne. It wouldn't be hard.

No, we shouldn't be against fun or innocent amusement. And we certainly shouldn't be shy of honouring great achievement. And who would argue against the God-given right of debating long into the night about the merits of an Ali against those of a Marciano? Who wants to argue against my belief that for pure, concentrated venom and machismo and 15 rounds of full-throttled fistic brilliance Roberto Duran's defeat of Sugar Ray Leonard in Montreal may never have been surpassed? Or that three rounds of Hagler-Hearns was something that no one could ever forget?

There is no point in watching sport if it doesn't inspire in you an opinion or a rage or a bliss, but it is a long and hazardous step from there to separating the Moores and the Bothams, the Redgraves and the Bannisters.

If the debate is to be staged, there have to be a few ground rules. There has to be a degree of respect. Johnny Vaughan probably only came to praise Gazza, but in the process he managed to bury so much of what is most important in sport. Lineker, a seasoned television pro now, merely rolled his eyes. As he did in Turin all those years ago. When Paul Gascoigne cried - and made himself a contender as the greatest sporting personality of 50 years. Somebody say it just ain't so.

50 Years of BBC Sports Personalities Of The Year

1954 Chris Chataway (athletics) Broke world 5,000m record in televised race with Vladimir Kuts

1955 Gordon Pirie (athletics) Set five world middle-distance records and beat host of top-class opponents

1956 Jim Laker (cricket) Took 19 wickets in England's Old Trafford victory over Australia

1957 Dai Rees (golf) Captained Ryder Cup team that won trophy from US for first time in 22 years

1958 Ian Black (swimming) Won three European medals and Empire Games gold during the summer

1959 John Surtees (motorsport) Won second world motorcyling title, later became world champion racing driver

1960 David Broome (showjumping) Bronze medal winner at the Olympics in Rome, highlight of 40-year career

1961 Stirling Moss (motor racing) Runner-up in world championship, he won 16 grands prix during career

1962 Anita Lonsbrough (swimming) The 1960 Olympic gold medallist was first swimmer to be awarded an MBE

1963 Dorothy Hyman (athletics) Commonwealth champion at 100 and 220yds, European champion at 100m

1964 Mary Rand (athletics) First British woman to win Olympic athletics gold, in the long jump at Tokyo

1965 Tommy Simpson (cycling) First Briton to make impact on European professional road racing; won world title

1966 Bobby Moore (football) Captained England to World Cup win; first of four footballers to win this award

1967 Henry Cooper (boxing) Unbeaten throughout year, enhancing reputation as Britain's favourite boxer

1968 David Hemery (athletics) Won 400m hurdles gold medal at the Mexico Olympics, breaking world record

1969 Ann Jones (tennis) Women's singles champion at Wimbledon, ending Billie Jeane King's reign

1970 Henry Cooper (boxing) British, Commonwealth, European heavyweight champion, first to win award twice

1971 Princess Anne (equestrianism) Won the individual European three-day event title at Burghley

1972 Mary Peters (athletics) Britain's only Munich Olympics athletics champion, winning pentathlon gold

1973 Jackie Stewart (motor racing) Won third Formula One world championship and retired with 27 race wins

1974 Brendan Foster (athletics) Won European 5,000m title, broke the 3,000m world record for second time

1975 David Steele (cricket) Gritty batsman who helped England to draw Ashes series against Australia

1976 John Curry (ice skating) Figure skater who won European, world and Olympic title during year

1977 Virginia Wade (tennis) Won women's singles at Wimbledon, last British singles title winner

1978 Steve Ovett (athletics) Captured first major title when winning European Championship 1500m

1979 Sebastian Coe (athletics) Set world records for 800m, 1500m and mile in space of 41 days

1980 Robin Cousins (ice skating) Beat Coe and Daley Thomspon to award after winning Olympic gold medal

1981 Ian Botham (cricket) Inspired England to Ashes victory with match-winning innings at Headingley

1982 Daley Thompson (athletics) Broke decathlon world record twice to win Commonwealth and European titles

1983 Steve Cram (athletics) Narrowly beat Steve Ovett to win first World Championship 1500m

1984 Torvill and Dean (ice skating) Gained perfect sixes from all nine judges to win Olympic ice dance gold medal

1985 Barry McGuigan (boxing) Won WBA featherweight title from Eusebio Pedroza with points decision

1986 Nigel Mansell (motor racing) Narrowly missed out on world title after tyre blew spectacularly in final grand prix

1987 Fatima Whitbread (athletics) World record-holder, won women's javelin title at World Championship

1988 Steve Davis (snooker) Winner of six world championships was awarded MBE in this year

1989 Nick Faldo (golf) Won first US Masters title two years after helping Europe beat US in Ryder Cup

1990 Paul Gascoigne (football) Steered England to World Cup semi-finals where tears sparked 'Gazza-mania'

1991 Liz McColgan (athletics) Within months of giving birth to first child, won world championship 10,000m

1992 Nigel Mansell (motor racing) Captured Formula One world title by winning nine grands prix in year

1993 Linford Christie (athletics) Won World Championship 100m; was oldest Olympic sprint champion in 1992

1994 Damon Hill (motor racing) Lost world title to Michael Schumacher after collision in final grand prix

1995 Jonathan Edwards (athletics) Won European Cup and World Championship triple jump with world records

1996 Damon Hill (motor racing) Won final grand prix of season in Japan to capture Formula One world title, thus emulating his father Graham

1997 Greg Rusedski (tennis) Runner-up in US Open; first British man to reach Grand Slam final in 60 years

1998 Michael Owen (football) Became national hero with goal in World Cup against Argentina

1999 Lennox Lewis (boxing) Became Britain's first undisputed world heavyweight champion for a century

2000 Steve Redgrave (rowing) Made history by winning fifth Olympic gold medal in Sydney

2001 David Beckham (football) Hero after late free-kick equaliser against Greece took England to World Cup

2002 Paula Radcliffe (athletics) Won world cross-country title, London Marathon, Commonwealth 5,000m and European 10,000m; broke Marathon world record